Before we discuss the history and implications of the disposable paper cup, let’s begin by examining how paper cups were made and are currently manufactured. The earliest disposable individual paper cups were often made of paper coated with paraffin or wax, especially those that could be folded up and reused. But once manufacturers realized that single-use cups were the most profitable and sanitary method, the cups began to be made out of something cheap, easy to find, and easy to dispose of – uncoated paper. With the development of wood pulp paper in the late 1860s, paper prices began to decline. Today, as they were since the 1920s, disposable cups are often made out of paper but are lined in order to prevent liquid from leaking out. Once, cups were lined with wax. Today, paper cups are 95% paper and 5% polyethylene plastic lining.
Disposable paper cup advertisements and product brochures argued that single-use cups were sanitary not only because they were only used once but also because of how they were made. The manufacturing process and the materials used contributed to the ultimate cleanliness of the cup. Dixie cups were advertised as sanitary because not only were the paper cups made at “a country mill where air, water and pure materials make for spotless whiteness” (an irony considering how polluting the paper-making process was, and is today) but they were also made “on wholly automatic machines” with almost no human interaction. The Baldwin Finback Drinking Cup’s brochure stated that the cups were made under “cleanly conditions, from a specially prepared paraffined paper.” In a Tulip Cup Co., Inc. brochure the company reported that their cups offered a “wholesome drink” with a “clean taste” due to both the materials used and the manufacturing process. Some cups were made as a single folded piece of paper while others were pieced together using adhesives, both by machines. Ads for cups made without glue,such as the one below for Crystal Sterilized Drinking Cups, boasted that they included no “glue, paraffin or wax” while others declared that they were made only of “heavy Bond paper and waxed with the highest grade of refined Paraffin.”
Just as there were multiple designs for paper cups there were also multiple ways to manufacture them. Further, the processes of manufacturing the disposable paper cups, along with the cups themselves were oftentimes patented by inventors and manufacturers in an effort to gain competitive advantage. This patent for the process for the production of paper cups from 1930 is only one way in which one type of disposable paper cup was manufactured. Manufacturers used the increased mechanization of cup making, especially the machine-made qualities of the cups, as the reason why their cups were sanitary Although disposable paper cup manufacturing was mechanized, it still involved some human intervention as can be seen in the photographs below of workers in a Dixie Cup Easton Plant from around 1925.
There are two processes involved in the production of paper cups today. The manufacturing process begins with the base paper (called cup-board) being fed through a printing press to put the desired logo, image, or business name onto the cup. The paper is then cut and punched into the appropriate size by a die cutting machine before the cup forming process begins. The forming process is the second step. First, paper cup blanks are transferred to the cup-side sealing mold before being sealed to form a paper cup. Next the bottom pieces are punched out and cut before being inserted and pushed into the paper cup. The bottoms of the cups are then sealed using heat and pressure. The cup rim is then curled using pressure. Finally the finished cups come out of the machine and are transferred to the packaging area to be prepared for transport.
To see the process in action, check out this clip from “How It is Made” from the Discovery Channel.